Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

11 February 2021

KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s look at the latest on the climate debate federally. A lot of debate going on in the Nationals. Some MPs – Matt Canavan, Barnaby Joyce – saying they don’t like the net zero by 2050 idea. The Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack wants agriculture carved out potentially as part of that target. His colleague, the Deputy Nationals Leader David Littleproud and Minister for Agriculture, he believes farmers could potentially cash in on a net zero emissions target. That’s the view of the Farmers’ Federation as well. I spoke to him about that a short time ago. [Excerpt]

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think farmers have already done the heavy lifting. History demonstrates that. We wouldn’t have met Kyoto and wouldn’t be on the trajectory to not just meet but beat Paris if it wasn’t for the initial work that farmers had to endure. And when we first signed up to Kyoto, what happened was their right, their property rights were impinged, and large-scale vegetation management restrictions came in on them, and they weren’t rewarded for that financially. They had a property right taken away from them and they weren’t rewarded. The Federal Government gave money to state governments and the state governments put it in their pockets. So, farmers have managed a large significant amount of the resource, the landscape of this country, and they can play a very active role in trying to reduce emissions, but also being rewarded for that. Whether that be through source sequestration or carbon farming. And we’ve got a pilot with respect to that around biodiversity stewardship, which is not just abating carbon, but a more sophisticated model where you get a premium on top of that for improvement in biodiversity. So, these are the types of things that primary producers can play an active role in, and want to play an active role in. But we have to make sure there’s no disadvantage to regional areas and to farmers, and that’s what the Prime Minister was very clear about at his Press Club address last week where he made it very clear he won’t be taxing our way to this, and regional Australia won’t pick up the bill for this. We’ve already done that. But I think we can be at the seat of the table, be very proactive, and be part of the solution. And that’s the constructive role that I think agriculture wants to play, regional Australia wants to play. And I think if we were given that opportunity, I think there can be some benefits for us rather than the burden that’s been borne on us previously.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, certainly that’s the view of all the peak councils – meat and livestock, the Farmers’ Federation, the pork industry. They’re all saying the same thing that basically they want to be at the table. So, are you worried if agriculture were to be carved out, it could have an adverse effect that you miss out on the gains? That as you say, agriculture’s earned?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, well, look, I think what the National Party’s been very clear on is we don’t want to sign up to a platitude. You actually have to know what the plan is, you have to know the facts. That’s the dangerous thing about signing up to something. We don’t actually know how we’re going to get there and who’s going to pay, and that’s been the position of the National Party. We’re the last barrier, the last line of defence for regional and rural Australia and for our primary producers. So, we want to make sure that whatever the plan is, we’re taken into account- not only as part of the solution, but we’re protected because of the heavy lifting that we’ve already done. So, once we see the plan, obviously, we can work through, but we want to be constructive with it. I think what you’ve got to appreciate is there’s a lot of fatigue on this issue, not only here but globally. There’s about 130 odd nations that are signed up to net zero by 2050, but only 16 of them have given clear annunciation of a pathway to achieve it. Now’s not the time for more platitudes, it’s time for honesty, and I think that’s what the Prime Minister’s saying, is if we’re going to sign up to this and meet our international commitments, then we have to be honest about the pathway in which we can achieve it. The Australian people who were given this option back at the last election, Labor went to them and said: look, we want to sign up to net zero emissions by 2050, we don’t know how we’re going to get there or who’s going to pay for it – and they were told to take a running jump by the Australian public. I think what people want and are sick of are platitudes, and they just want honesty. They want a clear trajectory of pathway with honesty, and that’s why I think the Prime Minister has set forward in terms of the technology roadmap and the way that agriculture can play a role in that is going to be an important one.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Maher from the Farmers’ Federation says agriculture- again, it’s a similar point to the question I made before, but I'm just wondering is your glass half full like Tony Maher is. He says that agriculture is in a unique position where it can sequester carbon in the soil, still use it for grazing, whatever else, give the beef or whatever other stock is- the farmer is running a green tick and then they get the win/win. Do you see that as a glass half full or are you more negative on it like Matt Canavan?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's why I brought in the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, but you've got to be able to quantify it. And that's the thing is we've got people not only here in Australia, but around the world running off, signing up to these platitudes and big targets just to give everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling. But what you've got to do is be honest with people. And that's why I've invested on behalf of the Australian taxpayer $34 million into trying to be able to measure not just carbon abatement, but improvement in biodiversity so our farmers can get a financial reward for that. The soil carbon piece that Angus Taylor is working on will be pivotal. I mean, if you can get that measurement down to around $3 a hectare, you bring farmers into play in terms of their management, but you've got to be able to quantify it. Otherwise, you really don't know how you're going to get there and who's going to pay for it. And this is the pivotal thing. It's also important to understand agriculture also relies heavily on transport and the energy sector. So, we need to look at the total plan in entirety. And that's why the Nats have simply said, well, we're going to- we're going to reserve our judgement, we'll wait and see, but we're not going to deal ourselves out of it. We'd like to be calm and rational about this. There is a mood to continue to reduce emissions. We get that. We want to be constructive in that, but we don't want there to be a disadvantage on regional, rural Australia.

KIERAN GILBERT: That point, that you made about measuring the carbon in the soil is an interesting one. $3 per hectare. That would be down from about $30 at the moment per hectare. If that were to be achieved, that gives a quantifiable abatement that farmers can then sell either to government, industry, whatever else.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Exactly and that’s where the offsets can come. That’s- you’ve got to be able to- to be able to sell it you’ve got to be able to measure it and that’s what we’ve done with the biodiversity pieces to be able to work with the…

KIERAN GILBERT: How far away is that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …technology to be able to measure it. In fact, I’ll be proud to say that next month I’ll be announcing the pilots in each of the states that we’ll start off. All the legwork by ANU has been completed and on time. They promised it by the end of last year, they delivered that and now they’ve worked through where the pilots should be in each of the states. So once we have that, we have a measurement and that’s where, once we can measure it in the improvement, we can also put a seal on it that can be internationally recognised. You’ve got to understand, we are leading the world, not just in trying to understand soil carbon but this bio-diversity stewardship piece. We actually have an opportunity to prove to the world that we can lead a market where our farmers can be rewarded, we can post a seal on it and give the consumer confidence that there is currency in what they have done at the farm to produce the best beef or sheep in the world.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah exactly, I mean that seems like a real upside. So then in that context, are you less worried about the threats of carbon tariffs or carbon levies from governments? Boris Johnson is saying his departments look at carbon border levies for countries that aren’t doing their bit, what do you make of that as part of the British suite of policies?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that’d be a disappointing development and a step back in terms of international trade. I think that would be weaponised as a tool for protectionism and I wouldn’t support it in any way and I think that we need to have constructive dialogue internationally around this. You know, I think we need to be mature and understand that we have evolved in terms of international trade to a level where those types of concerns can be built in regardless of what we’re trying to do. But I think Australia has led the world with respect to what we’ve done in our national commitments. You’ve got to understand we were signed up to Paris, we didn’t get off that pony, we never got off the Paris pony and the United States did, now they’re catching up to us. We will meet and we will beat Paris. That’s far ahead of many other countries around the world and I suggest than some even in Europe. So, we’ve lived up to our international commitments but we’re not judging out trading partners on that, we’re judging them on the fairness of trade, the product that they provide, the safety of that product and to complicate international trade with that would be a retrograde step, and I think it would be a dangerous one in which the UK would go down. And I would be concerned that it’s about weaponising protectionism more than anything other than that.

KIERAN GILBERT: Are you worried that the free trade agreements we’re trying to get done with the UK and the EU might hit the fence or is this basically saying that the Government just simply has to commit to that target 2050 and be done with it so it can get those free trade deals signed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well if we commit to 2050 to a specific date- we’ve already signed up to the second half of the century under the Paris Agreement. What the Prime Minister said is if there’s a way through technology and science to accelerate that to 2050, and we can be honest not only with the Australian public but our international trading partners, then we’ll sign up to that. Because as I said earlier with 130 that have signed up to this, only 16 have provided a pathway. So, if you want to look at a level trade playing field, there are many nations that have just simply signed up for the sake of it to get the platitude there. They haven't actually given a clear pathway to do it. That doesn't have any moral standing in my mind and doesn't give you any higher moral standing when you go and sit at a trading table to discuss trade agreements. So, I think we’ve got to be very careful and countries need to be very careful about trying to moralise this through trade, because some of them may come up a little bit short and come unstuck.

KIERAN GILBERT: The US president has spoken to the Chinese leader, apparently a smoother phone call than we might have expected under Joe Biden's predecessor, but he's been talking in more constructive language, I guess still tough on China, but maybe a bit more predictable. Are you hopeful that Biden might be able to help calm things down on the US front and maybe that has a flow on effect for Australia and our exporters?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we'd like to hope so. We can't guarantee that and we'd like to think that President Biden has also made it clear that the actions against Australian producers here are unwarranted and that it would be better to start dialogue again, for us to be constructive with that. And Australia's never turned its back on that. We'll continue to make sure that the Chinese know that we are there to have dialogue, to rectify any issues they may have, but we will not compromise on our sovereignty or values. We made that clear. And when they're ready to accept that, we will be there ready to have that dialogue. That's the only way in which to resolve differences is to have dialogue and the Australian Government will continue to do that. But there will never be a compromise on our sovereignty or any of the values and principles that hundreds of thousands of Australians have lost their lives protecting. And if any country thinks, whether China or any other country thinks we will, well they're in for a long wait.

KIERAN GILBERT: David Littleproud, appreciate your time, thanks for that.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.